The anniversary season is upon us once more. Three years ago it was the outbreak of war in 1914 that furnished historians and essayists with a theme for reflections upon the course of the preceding half-century. Now it is the Russian Revolution in 1917, or rather its opening phase, for the Civil War went on until 1921, and there were further upheavals to come. During those years of turmoil something of importance happened to European civilization, but what? Was it merely given a new shape, or did the life go out of it? Everyone is pretty well agreed that the nineteenth century terminated in the First World War, for what came to an end then was not merely the familiar balance of power, but something more important: a particular culture generally associated with bourgeois liberalism, parliamentary government, national patriotism, and European pre-eminence in world affairs. Socialism was transformed too—the Second International split, and Bolshevism arose to confront Social Democracy. Yet Eastern and Western Europe were affected in quite different ways. It is even possible to hold that in some respects Western Europe turned out to have more in common with North America than with the Eastern half of the European Continent.
Robert Wohl’s long and learned study of French communism makes a significant contribution to this theme, though only if one is willing to follow him to the end. This demands patience, for Mr. Wohl belongs to the school of historians (more numerous, and certainly better equipped, in the United States than elsewhere) who are reluctant to leave anything out. Having climbed to the top of a mountain of source material, he still craves for more. There can never, it seems, be enough material for him to digest. After describing at length the founding of the French Communist Party in December 1920, and giving the names of all its leaders, he asks (p. 217):
Who were their troops? We would like to know in detail the social origins, occupations, and state of mind of the 110,000 Socialists who followed the party into the Third International in the first six months of 1921. This information is lacking, and it may never be assembled.
It is indeed lacking and for good reason: no one can possibly know what 110,000 people were all doing and thinking in 1921. However, we do know something about them, and Mr. Wohl deserves much praise for having sorted it out. He has had help from other historians—notably from Mme. Annie Kriegel, whose great work on the founding of the CP (published in 1964) is even bulkier than his own—but it is clear that he has done an impressive amount of spadework. Moreover, unlike Mme. Kriegel, who stops in 1921, he goes on to 1924 and even a short distance beyond. Thus his readers can discover how the dissensions in Moscow after Lenin’s death affected the International, and how the Comintern emissaries operated behind the scenes to install leaders loyally obedient to Moscow.
ALL THIS IS RELEVANT, if not precisely exhilarating, but the real interest of the book lies elsewhere: in explaining how communism arose in the decade from 1914 to 1924, and what it signified. The French Communist Party was formally constituted in December, 1920, when a majority of the Socialist delegates at Tours decided to join the newly founded Third International. But the split had a long and complicated prehistory, going back to the pre-1914 disputes between parliamentary Socialists and revolutionary Syndicalists, and ultimately involving all the old doctrinal quarrels symbolized by the brief and tragic Paris Commune of 1971. Mr. Wohl’s introductory chapter on the pre-1914 movement has the considerable merit of making it clear that the real issue in those days lay between socialism and syndicalism, not (as in Germany) between “Marxists” and “revisionists.” In the first place, there were few Marxists in France; secondly, they had by 1914 been converted to parliamentary democracy; and, lastly, the non-Marxists (e.g., Jean Jaurès) were far more combative and radical than all but a tiny handful of German Socialists. Again, the real radicals, the anarcho-syndicalists, who before 1914 virtually controlled the French unions, had no counterpart in Central Europe, for they not only talked about “the social revolution,” they actually thought it was imminent. Moreover (unlike Lenin) they believed it would be a proletarian revolution. No infallible Central Committee for them! Their faith was staked on the revolutionary spontaneity of the masses! As for parliamentary government in general, and parliamentary socialism in particular, they were convinced that both were on the way out.
In retrospect it is clear enough that these were illusions, not (as the radicals believed) because of the over-ripeness of capitalism in France, but rather because of its weakness. France—like Italy and Spain—was not yet properly a modern industrial country. Economic growth was slow; social life was stagnant; and the industrial working class was firmly excluded from the official culture. Its revolutionary vanguard reacted by seceding from society and repudiating its symbols, notably patriotism and democracy. But the Socialist Party (including its Marxist wing) was committed to both. More important, the bulk of the working class and peasantry was solidly republican and patriotic. The outbreak of war in 1914 brought down the entire house of cards. The Socialists joined the government, and the Syndicalists were unable to mobilize even a handful of workers for the revolutionary general strike they had planned for so long.
THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION in 1917 superimposed itself upon this debacle. It came just when the country had begun to weary of the endless bloodletting at the front, and by 1919 the Bolsheviks had succeeded in splitting the Socialist International. By the end of 1920 the issue was formalized; should French Socialists adhere to Moscow, and with what sort of perspective? Adhere many of them did, but not all of them believed it was possible to follow the Bolshevik example. The Syndicalists, moreover, while all for revolution and workers’ councils, had to swallow their old distaste for state socialism and party dictatorship. For a while the personal prestige of Lenin and Trotsky helped to bridge the gap, but by 1924, when Lenin was dead and Trotsky in eclipse, Communists in France had to ask themselves what they believed in. The answer they found was basically simple, though overlaid with a great deal of verbiage. In essentials it came down to this: the Bolsheviks were the model to be followed, if and when the opportunity arose, but pending this event, the Communist Party should provide the workers (and if possible the peasants) with an all-embracing organization: a closed universe shut off from the rest of society and indifferent to its symbols. In short, the CP was to repeat, on a larger scale and with far ampler means, the Syndicalist experiment of organizing a proletarian secession from the body politic.
“Communism” in France thus came to mean, not the revolutionary conquest of power (for this turned out to be impossible), but the creation of a “subculture” which was also a permanent opposition against the established order. The unintended result was to reinforce the conservatism of bourgeois society, for with all the revolutionary energies drained off into the communist ghetto, the conservatives (including the governing “Radical” party) had an easy time. In this paradoxical manner, the CP helped to perpetuate not only the rigid class alignment, and the ouvrièriste pathos, of its Syndicalist ancestors, but the pre-industrial stagnation of a large sector of French society. This interplay between Right and Left underlay the peculiar immobility of the Third Republic in its declining phase, a social torpor from which France was awakened (at great cost) by the defeat of 1940 and the wartime Resistance movement.
THE POLITICAL and ideological disputes in the course of which the PCF (Parti Communiste français) arose on the wreckage of the old pre-1914 revolutionary movement, are analyzed in remorseless detail by Mr. Wohl. His patience must have been put to a stern test, but he comes through intact, never flagging from the task of tracking down the personal and factional splits, quarrels, and maneuvers from which in due course the centralized apparatus of the Thorezian bureaucracy emerged: a bureaucracy remarkably like that of a great modern corporation, down to the care devoted to the training of loyal office staff and the relentless weeding-out of non-conformists. None of the old pre-1914 revolutionary labor leaders and intellectuals survived the endless purges, once loyalty to the Kremlin had become the test of orthodoxy. In fairness to the Russians, and to the Comintern, it has to be said (and Mr. Wohl is right to make the point) that Moscow acted mainly as a catalyst. The French Communists knew what they wanted: a party that would give them control over the working class, and a home-away-from-home for men and women deeply alienated from their fellow citizens. And what were they going to do with this splendid organization when they had it? Nothing at all—just live inside it, and try to capture as many municipalities as possible. In short, become another Social-Democratic party in all but name. Fifty years after the Bolsheviks seized power, that is what they have become, though they will never admit it.
For in France it will not do to admit that “total” revolution is no longer on the agenda. The moment may be drawing near, for the country has now at last become fully industrialized, and correspondingly the working class is no longer as alienated as before from the remainder of the nation. The dreadful secret is almost out: socialism and communism have proved effective in helping to integrate the proletariat into the new industrial society. Indeed the PCF, with its irremovable bureaucracy and its control over a greatly enlarged union movement, has shown itself far better at this task than the old pre-1914 Socialist and Syndicalist groups which never reached the masses. Ideology still stands in the way, but it is being subtly transformed. As the Sino-Soviet split deepens, loyalty to Moscow becomes an unconscious means of reviving some elements of the pre-1914 Social Democratic tradition which (a circumstance often forgotten) was also a Marxist one. We can already look forward to a situation in 1972 when something like Communist participation in a government responsible to a democratic parliament may become possible. It remains to be seen whether the PCF can shed its vestigial Stalinism fast enough to become respectable by the time a left-wing majority has been obtained.
In a country like France, where the socialist movement arose directly from the aftermath of the great upheaval of 1789, equivocations problems of this sort are familiar and indeed inescapable. After all, the Bolsheviks had modeled themselves on the Jabobins. Blanqui, the father of all believers in “proletarian dictatorship,” was a Jabobin before he became an early Communist, and so were his Russian pupils, Peter Tkachev and the rest, from whom Lenin inherited the tradition. That archetypal Jacobin, Georges Clemenceau, who in 1919 launched the first anti-Soviet crusade, had begun his political career as an adherent of Blanqui, l’enfermé: the man who spent thirty-six of forty-eight working years in prison, and most of those surviving followers went over to Marx after the defeat of the 1871 Commune; while Clemenceau moved in the other direction, to found the Radical party. Who then has been betraying whom? Does this kind of language even make sense?
Mr. Wohl, though perhaps more concerned with politics than with history, has enough historical sense to let the reader sense the continuity underlying the surface froth. Professor Pierce, another political scientist by trade, deals lucidly with the analysis of ideas. His book has an interesting theme: political thought in France as reflected in the work of six representative writers: Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Mounier, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Raymond Aron. There are also some observations on Maurras and on Alain, the philosopher (if that is the word) of the Radical party.
This is a useful introduction to the subject, and a model of organization. Professor Pierce has worked his way through a vast amount of literature, gives a brief account of the topics he has selected for analysis, and provides a large enough scholarly apparatus to keep both students and examiners happy. Moreover, and for this he deserves special praise, he has integrated his critical studies with enough biographical material to bring out the interrelation between what his writers thought and what was happening in the larger world around them. If his style is a trifle pedestrian, he makes up for it by being always clear and sensible. He is indeed so level-headed that his readers may be in danger of failing to grasp the mental and moral chaos reflected in the writings of his protagonists. French history in this century has been tragic, and Professor Pierce shares the Anglo-American distaste for extremes, though he manfully tries to overcome it. At times this results in an uneasy compromise. Thus he makes Camus sound reasonable and well balanced. He even defines him as a “liberal moralist,” which seems an odd choice of language. Camus was many things in his life, including a near-Communist and a near-Anarchist. The one thing he always managed to steer away from was liberalism, at least in the conventional significance of that familiar term. But then the only authentic liberal in Mr. Pierce’s collection is Raymond Aron, and even he writes for a conservative paper (Le Figaro) because there is no liberal daily in Paris. (That great journal, Le Monde, is democratic and Christian-Socialist, which is a very different matter.)
ANOTHER POSSIBLE CRITICISM of Mr. Pierce’s work is that his historical sense works sideways, but not backward or forward. His topography takes in the Resistance period and its aftermath, e.g., Camus’s dispute with Sartre and his unhappy silence about Algeria during the last phase of his life, but he seems reluctant to pursue historical roots beyond the cut-off date of 1914. He is vague about Marxism, conventional about Maurrassism, and silent on some of the minor, but important, political strands, e.g., that highly original fusion of popular Catholicism and Jacobin radicalism which has been a factor in French life since the great Revolution (and but for which there would have been no Resistance movement, no Christian-Democratic movement, and much less in the way of Gaullism). A writer like Mounier is difficult to understand if one does not relate him to a Christian-Socialist tradition going back to the Saint-Simonism of the 1830s; his ancestors include that fervent Catholic and early socialist, Philippe Buchez, who launched the cooperative movement in the 1840s and in the stormy year 1848 rose to become chairman of the National Assembly. It is not irrelevant that Buchez was a lifelong admirer of Robespierre. French political history is not just a matter of Le rouge et le noir, or at least these colors have often tended to get mixed. And how is one to translate into English a phrase found in (of all places) Le Monde in 1961, at the time of the last despairing resistance of the Algerian ultras to the coming of independence: “L’OAS, c’est la Commune de la Droite.” Try to make sense of French politics (or of Camus) without grasping the full import of these words, so shocking to ordinary democratic sentiment! No wonder the “Anglo-Saxons” fail to understand the General—a former Maurassien who admires Clemenceau and is secretly admired by the extreme Left. It is perhaps a trifle unfair if one regrets that these convolutions remain beneath the surface of Professor Pierce’s eminently sound and sensible discussion of the topic.
April 6, 1967